Margaret Cho Talks Representation, Humor in the Trump Era and What Pride Means Now
interview by Shelley Farmer / photos by Albert Sanchez
11 July 2017
How do you introduce a legend? Margaret Cho has been lauded as one of the greatest standups of all time; her sitcom, All American Girl, was network TV's first show about an Asian-American family; she's appeared on seemingly every show, from the Golden Girls spinoff, The Golden Palace, to 30 Rock; she even has a music career. A queer icon (both as a favorite of gay men and an openly bisexual woman), Cho has long been one of the most socially conscious—not to mention funniest—figures in the entertainment industry. After a recent tour, Cho is hard at work on an upcoming TV show, but she took a break to speak with PAPER about representation, humor in the Trump Era, and what Pride means now.
You've talked a lot about representation lately, particularly as it relates to Asian Americans onscreen. Queer representation can be slightly slipperier to talk about because, outside of showing queer characters in the context of their relationships, it's not always a visually identifiable thing. What are your thoughts on how queer people are represented and the question of who gets to tell queer stories?
It's getting better, the more we see people who are telling their stories. There's not a lot of queer representation, and certainly there's not a lot of intersectional queer representation that we see. We see a lot of stories from one perspective, but we don't hear a lot from queer people of color. There's a little bit more for trans men and women, but it's a gradual process. We just need to see more stories out there, more people telling their stories. I don't think about perspective—if you're telling a story where there's a queer character and the writer or the production isn't, that's just part of general representation. I'd love to see more representation, as opposed to less, so I don't have a problem with where the characters or where the story is coming from, or who it's being told by, as long as there's more. All I want is more.
How do you think we go about doing that? I know that we need more queer creators, but there's the systemic issue of people in power who aren't thinking about these queer stories and are maybe less likely to hire the creators who would tell them. How do we create change as individuals?
People tell their stories. That's it. We just tell our stories. And there are now more ways to do that than ever with social media the way it is, with the access that we have to technology. We just tell our stories. It's simple as that.
You've spoken a lot about your experience being on network TV, and the sort of lack of agency you felt in that, but you primarily work in standup, which is all about agency and autonomy. How do you maintain your identity as an artist across various art forms?
My work as a standup comedian is pretty much where I feel like I have my artistic expression. That's where I have most control over my voice as a performer. So, I don't really think about other projects. I am going to start to think about it more and I'll be doing TV more, but, in general, I really just focus on my work as a standup comedian. That's what I do; that's what I'll always do; that's what I always have done; it's what I have a lot of experience in. And it's the one thing that I really truly care about artistically. And I think I approach everything else the same way that I do standup comedy.
In your PsyCHO special, you have a joke about Christopher Dorner, a former LAPD officer who went on a shooting spree in 2013, calling you one of the most beautiful women on the planet. I find that one really interesting because it gets at this experience of growing up in a culture that teaches you that the most important thing you can be is desired by men. How do you navigate being an outspoken feminist with this cultural conditioning that tells us we should want to be found pretty?
I don't really think about it. I don't know. I actually do not think about the way that I look. I'm very into fashion and I'm very into makeup and skincare and hair and that stuff as a personal aesthetic, as opposed to like, “Oh I want to look this way in order to get somebody's attention." It's nothing like that. My sense of fashion and my sense of style are very much about artistic expression. Maybe because I'm older, I don't think about those sorts of values of being attractive. It's not my sense of self that needs that. But I do like things aesthetically. I do like having a sense of style and a strong perspective in terms of style -- I think style's very political in it's own way and very important. So, I look to that as being much more valuable than anything else.
I'm sure you've been asked a million times about what it's like to be a woman in comedy, but I'm curious how your experience has shifted throughout your career. There's definitely more visibility now.
All of the female comedians that I know are very successful and it's because we're isolated in this business. For men in comedy, there's a lot of camaraderie and bonding and they have their own system of coming up and getting better at what they do with this community. But women don't have that kind of community. We're very isolated. In a lot of ways, that makes us much stronger. It's also harder to survive. Only the best can really survive, but, once you get there, you can always work. I just did a show with Sarah Silverman and Tig Notaro and their strength as comedians is just absolutely incredible. And we all grow because it's been a hard place to get to.
You've spoken a lot about your relationship with Joan Rivers. Are there are specific things you learned about navigating the business from her? It was such a difficult landscape for women when she came up.
Yeah, she was always very supportive. With me and Sarah Silverman -- she was always very fond of us both -- she would always say that we're always going to work, they're always going to need you, don't be scared. She just would be full of advice and full of caring. She was great.
I was really struck by the story you told in PsyCHO about Howard Stern speaking at Rivers' funeral and joking about her "dry pussy." It's a really beautiful story of using humor to cope with dark experiences. We're living in a pretty tough time politically; what do you think the role of comedy is at a time like this?
I don't know. I started comedy during the Regan era -- which was a very long time ago. So, I've been through a couple of difficult presidents -- both Reagan and George W. Bush. Also 9/11; after that, we really sought relief from comedians, whether that was Jon Stewart or Bill Maher or Stephen Colbert. They really helped shape our views on what we could do about that tragedy and how we could go on. And also the travesty of the Bush administration -- we needed comedy more than ever, and I feel like this is exactly the same, although now it's going to be more a function of women comedians to talk about what's going on. Even if you look at the positioning of Donald Trump against someone like Rosie O'Donnell -- it was like he was out for female comedians. So, this is our chance to really shape the way we're going to view this administration in the future.
A big part of the conversation around Trump is this notion of the country being bifurcated, that there's no communication between progressives and conservatives. Do you think it's possible to bridge that divide without watering down your own message?
There's a way to do it. There has to be. Ultimately, this is always about entertainment, so that's my primary goal, to be a good entertainer.
You grew up in San Francisco, which has changed dramatically from being known as a queer mecca to being a huge tech hub. Do you feel the city has changed fundamentally?
I love it; I think it's different. I think it's difficult to compare it to what it used to be, but it's still, in a lot of ways, very much an artistic hub and artistic mecca. It's a very diverse city, even though a lot of the weirdness has been filtered out because of the rising cost of living there. You know, it's really prohibitive to people who are struggling artists. But there's still a very weird vibe. The city's always going to be strange and I love that about it.
That conversation about rising costs and artistic communities is happening in so many cities right now; certainly in New York. How do you think we maintain these vibrant communities when it's becoming increasingly hard for artists to gather in cities?
These communities thrive in places like Oakland or Brooklyn -- you see so much more coming out of there and that's really interesting too.
You work in so many different forms – besides comedy and writing, you've been working on music. What do you get from the different art forms you work in?
I like music -- to me, it's very social, and most of my work is kind of motivated by the fun of hanging out with my friends. People I'm in bands with, I'm friends with. I play with other bands. It's really different from comedy, which is very solitary. Music is very social.
As someone who thrives in these social environments, how do you stay sane when you go on tour?
Well, now I have a little touring party. I have someone who opens for me and then I have a tour manager and there are friends that I've made in the different cities I go to all over the world. So, it becomes a little bit less isolated, but it's still an adventure. I'm also very good on my own because of being in comedy for so long. I'm very able to be a one-man show. It's not too bad.
Going forward, are there particular projects that you're really excited about at the moment?
I'm working on a TV show, which is about a different kind of Asian-American family that we've never seen before, which is exciting. I can't really talk too much about that because we're just right now making it.
Do you have any concerns about working on TV after your experience with All American Girl?
No -- I mean, I've done it. Now, since I've done it, I know what to do. I just approach it like I do standup comedy. I'm going to make a show that I wanted to make and I'm thrilled.
In your recent special, you talk about being inspired by Robin Williams and giving back to your community through street performance. We're all re-energized at the moment to participate in our communities and to try to give back. Do you think a grass roots approach is the best way to do that?
It can be any way -- it's all sorts of ways. When we were doing that #BeRobin project, it was also all about social media and harnessing that. But there are so many different ways that people can do good for their community. And that's all kind of very inventive. So, we're seeing how that can happen every day in different ways.
What do you think the significance of Pride is at this specific, fraught moment in time?
You know, now more than ever -- it's sort of the thing that everybody says, it's a very true statement, though – now more than ever, it's important. And I think that's going to be reflected in the way we celebrate Pride. It's a very urgent situation that we're dealing with, with this administration. So, now more than ever, it's more important to be involved in Pride and taking pride.
I've read several pieces lately about how, in recent years, Pride has been more of a celebration and that, this year, it's going to feel more like a political act again.
Yeah, it's more like a protest now. It's fortunate that we had a lot of celebrations, with the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage and so much good stuff, but this time it's really going to go back to some of our roots as political protest.
Do you have plans for Pride this year?
I think I'd like to ride with the Dykes on Bikes this year. Hopefully, I'll have a motorcycle up and running by June. I've never ridden with them but I would love to. I actually am a motorcycle rider and I've never done it, so that would be good. I think that's always a really majestic part of every gay pride.